Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Using the lift for the first time

Here's our venerable 1997 Toyota Camry on my new automotive lift for a servicing prior to its annual state inspection.

And here's the photo that shows the desired effect of the new lift -- total and unimpeded access to the undercarriage and underside of the car. 

This new piece of equipment will allow me to do nearly all of the remaining routine service and repair jobs that we normally have to have done at an auto repair shop, saving us an awful lot of money.

I've been working on cars for something like thirty years, since I was about 21 or 22. I've been a trained engineering technician for even longer, since I graduated the RAF's Number One School or Technical Training, RAF College Halton, in 1979 with the four-bladed propeller badge of an RAF Junior Technician (or JT) on my shoulder. To begin with I was trained on jet engines, but went back to Halton in early 1980 for the piston engine course. 

As a result of this training and then an awful lot of practical experience in mechanical shops and servicing hangers from Scotland to San Fransisco, there really isn't very much in the way of engineering repair and maintenance work that I don't know how to do. I can save my family and friends an awful lot of money of vehicles by using these skills. But cars are heavy, dangerous, and dirty bits of kit. You have to have the proper tools to do automotive work easily and well. So for years now, I've pulled my punches. I do about 70 to 80 percent of the repair work, and take the remainder to some shop where they have the proper tools and equipment. 

Primarily, when I'm finally forced to go to a shop, the thing I'm paying for is for the use of an automotive lift. I'm certainly not paying for the skills of the mechanic. In most cases they have to pry the keys out of my hands. I hate to turn my vehicles over to some other technician. And for good reason. More often that not, they screw it up. Here is an example (with links to more at the end of the piece).

So it was with very great pleasure that I used my new lift for the first time today. I can't easily describe how it felt. It was a bit like getting to the top of a great mountain that you've been wanting to climb for years. I certainly savored the experience, at least for the first few hours.

The job I needed to do was to ready the Camry for 1) state inspection and 2) winter driving. The state inspection sticker expired at the end of last month, so the Camry has been off the road. I was busy finishing up the exterior siding and insulation and fitting the doors to the inside of the house, then I decided I could get the lift installed first, making the Camry job, when I finally got around to it, a lot easier.

To begin I put the Camry on the lift and raised at as high as it would go, then blasted the remaining winter salt and dirt off the underside of the car with the pressure washer. I can't tell you how much pleasure it gave me to do this job so thoroughly. This simple new ability, to properly clean the underside of our vehicles, to actually see that they're clean, to scrub off rust with a wire wheel on the angle grinder and phosphoric acid, and to then use good proprietary rust prevention products like POR 15 or Fluid Film, the ones that actually work, to stop new rust from starting, will be the one thing that saves the most money for us. 

I've been using Fluid Film, and before that became widely available a year or two ago, other rust treatments, on the Camry more or less since we got it, and prior to that it was garaged and not driven in the winter, so it's in great shape for a '97. Now I can keep it that way.

The other problem with the Camry that might cause it to fail inspection was the wonky ABS system. These braking safety systems, found on many if not most vehicles over twenty years old, prevent skidding on wet or icy roads by over-riding the driver's instinct to over-brake when going into a skid. Most people haven't had the kind of defensive driving training or hard experience that teaches you to use the brakes sparingly in a skid, so the ABS system does it for you by pulsing the brake fluid pressure, and thus pulsing the brake pads against the rotors or drums. Undoubtedly these systems save lives, but at the expense of making a more complicated, harder-to-repair vehicle.

Our Camry has had an intermittent ABS fault for some time now. The ABS warning light comes and goes. It all started when we bought the vehicle, years ago. It came with a bad front right ABS sensor, so I went to change it out several years ago, but the bolt was seized with rust and snapped. I used a cutting disk on the angle grinder to remove what was left of the bolt, drilled out the hole, tapped it for an oversize stud, put in a new sensor to which I'd drilled an oversized mounting hole, and hoped that would fix it. It didn't. The ABS light kept coming on and going off. 

I knew what was wrong. Without a lift, working on my back on the ground, unable to properly see what I was doing, I'd ground off too much of the "flesh" of the steering knuckle where it makes an attachment point for the sensor, and made too large a hole in the replacement sensor, and as a result the new sensor wasn't aligned properly with the castellated rotor on the end of the drive shaft that provides the signal. 

Here's the back of the hub. The sensor is the small black doohicky on the end of the black cable. You can see there's a stud holding it on, where there should be a bolt.

The rotor is ferrous, and the sensor magnetic, so the signal is a simple electromagnetic pulse. The end of the sensor has to point properly to the rotor for everything to work. 

With the vehicle on the lift I could easily see this alignment and fix it. I was even able to measure the proper distance using the working example on the driver side. The sensor body had to be fourteen millimeters from a certain spot on the steering knuckle and was in fact much less than that. I tinkered with spacer washers, finding the right fit, and made a collar to more tightly align the oversized sensor hole to the stud. All this was very pleasant work, with an almost Zen-like level of safety and calm. I have rarely been happier in my work.

But all good things must come to an end and the job was done soon enough. I buttoned everything back together, lowered the car off the lift and took it for a test drive. The light was out.

Just for back-up, I ordered a new sensor, which I'll use if the current fix doesn't stick, but now the Camry is ready for inspection.

Then it was the Land Rover's turn. The Rover's brakes needed attention if it was to pass inspection, which it must do by the end of the month. The brakes hadn't been great lately, and needed a lot of travel on the pedal to actuate them, and I wanted to find out why.

So this time I put the Rover on the trusty lift and raised it up and blasted it too with the pressure washer. Again, this gave me very great pleasure. The I pulled the wheels and drums and inspected all four sets of brake shoes and wheel cylinders.

After a few moments it occurred to me that wheel cylinders were far too new for the vehicle. These units are made of thick steel and get surface rust after a few years use. The rubber dust caps on the two ends of each cylinder also get worn and deformed. Our cylinders were still bright, albeit under a layer of brake dust, and the caps looked brand new. It's hardly likely that these are the originals considering the vehicle is forty-three years old this year.

The specifications for the thickness of braking material on the shoe were 3/16ths of an inch new, replace when 1/32nd remains. Ours were between an eighth of an inch and 3/16ths, so nearly new. All the wheel cylinders were working, none seemed to be leaking. The explanation for the weak brakes had to be elsewhere.

I adjusted the drums to the shoes carefully, and replaced the wheels, then sprayed Fluid Film rust preventative all over the ferrous components on the underside.

Land Rover bodies may be made of aluminum, but their frames are steel, and must be protected if the Rover is to survive Maine winter weather. The lift makes this job easier.

I also treated a little rust on the inner doors and door-posts with phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid or "phospho" converts rust to ferric phosphate, which is slightly rust-resistant. Later, I'll paint over the converted rust.

Today I will need to investigate the Rover's master cylinder and power brake booster. That's the next step in the diagnostic chain. I don't need the lift for that, but the concrete pad in the new work bay will make the job safer, since it will be firmer under foot than the driveway gravel.

So that's the round-up of current vehicle work using the new lift. Before the winter I'll also need to pull the Camry, Matrix and Frontier in for rust-proofing. 

I'm looking forward to it. 

Vehicle maintenance is going to be so much more pleasant now we have a safe, well-equipped work space.

I'll need a couple more gallons of Fluid Film.

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